Calvin: A Life in Stories: Part 6, Pennsylvania

Each Monday for the next several weeks, I will be publishing one section of the biography on my father I created in collaboration with over 30 contributing writers. Each story brings a unique perspective about my father. Last week I shared part 5 of the writing project that focused on my father’s 10+ years in Bolivia. This week in part 6, the focus is on my father’s life with his growing family in Pennsylvania. Enjoy!


Introduction (here)
Part 1: Ohio (September 12, 1953 – September 1971) (here)
Part 2: Goshen College (September 1971 – June 1973) (here)
Part 3: Bolivia (September 1973 – September 1976) (here)
Part 4: Ohio State (September 1976 – December 1979) (here)
Part 5: Bolivia Redux (January 1980 – July 1992) (here)
Part 6: Pennsylvania (July 1992 – December 1997) (below)
Part 7: Georgia (December 1997 – July 2004)
Part 8: Italy (July 2004 – December 2015)
Part 9: Virginia (December 2015 – Present)

(JULY 1992 – DECEMBER 1997)

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By Jerry Shank (Close friend)

During the time Cal and his family lived in Lancaster County, PA, my family and I had the privilege of living close by, and we counted the Millers as some of our closest friends. We had the common experience of having survived together terms of service in Bolivia with MCC and MEDA, which gave us reason to celebrate our common interests and experiences.

During this time, both of our families attended Akron Mennonite Church and we had the privilege of being in the same small church group with Cal and Jan. The children were often part of these events as well. Though this was a long time ago now, reflecting back to those days, I remember Cal was traveling a lot and sometimes it was just Jan and the children who attended those house church meetings. I remember Cal as always ready to discuss the economic components of doing good international development work. He took his work with MEDA very seriously and he seemed extraordinarily committed to travel the world to look after MEDA’s interests. Because of this, Jan seemed to be the chief organizer of family events, which she did in an excellent fashion.

Years later, when Cal and his family moved to Rome, Italy, it would become our intent to go visit them. Finally, in 2010, we made this trip a reality. Well, we almost did. Our trans-Atlantic flight was canceled at the last minute due to a volcanic eruption of epic proportions and our travels could not continue. Ever since, we have regretted not having this opportunity to see the Miller family operating from a Rome base. Our hunch is that during the Rome years Cal continued his worldwide travels. And I have no doubt that his contribution to the development community from this base was immense.

My wife and I tip our hats to Cal for his significant contribution to the world at large, but we also congratulate Jan for her role over the years for looking after the family and in helping to make possible this level of giving by her devoted, hard-working husband.

The Old Silk Road ©
By Henry Fast (MEDA Colleague)

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As a MEDA colleague for many years, Calvin Miller and I worked on several assignments together. The following describes our experiences while on a five-week mission in northwestern China. In his laid back manner, Calvin was a hard worker, professionally competent with many creative ideas and a pleasure to work with.

March 1995 – The lumbering Russian-built Tubolev Tu-154 jet liner slowly lifts off from Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang in northwestern China and points its nose in a southwesterly direction bound for Hetian (or Hotan in Uyghur). Our flight takes us across the harsh Taklimakan Desert, the world’s second largest desert with active, shifting sand dunes. Extreme maximum and minimum temperatures, lack of water, no food sources, and blinding sand storms make overland travel virtually impossible. Its name, Taklimakan, has variously been translated as “he who goes in will never come out” or “the desert of death.” No wonder Marco Polo skirted around its edges in his 13th century travels. Unfortunately, clouds and haze prevent us from catching an aerial glimpse of the dunes before the late afternoon sunsets.

We are a team of seven members: four Canadians, one American and two Chinese—four men and three women. Our mission is to design a poverty alleviation project for the benefit of women in rural farming areas.

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On arrival in Hetian, we are given a royal welcome by a large group of top brass including the Mayor, County Governor and two television crews, while pretty young girls in ethnic dress give each of us a bouquet of silk flowers. We are then whisked to our hotel where we are treated to a welcoming banquet with more strange foods than you can shake your chopsticks at. A roasted lamb’s head with its blank stare sits on a platter in the center of the table. During this trip we soon learn this is sheep country and that there are countless ways of preparing mutton – boiled, roasted, mutton soup, mutton, stew, mutton-filled buns, lamb pastries, lamb lung, stomach, and lamb-liver shish kebabs. Young waitresses with their cute, white Muslim caps just keep bringing more dishes for the table-top lazy-Susan until they are piled on top of each other, about twenty-five dishes in all. Unfortunately, some cuts of meat contain tough sinew or have not been cooked long enough, making them impossible to chew. When I comment about this to Calvin, he replies, “Oh, whatever I can’t chew properly, I just swallow.”

We spend the next three weeks traveling westward by road visiting oasis communities along the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert. At each stop we are treated to a welcoming lunch or banquet and another before our departure. More mutton dishes, of course, but also plump grapes, sun-dried raisins, walnuts, apples, pears, apricots, sunflower and watermelon seeds, pomegranates, and sweet honeydew melons that have been stored underground for six months. Delicious.

Remarkably, this whole region only gets 35 mm (1.3 inches) of precipitation a year while the evaporation rate is at least ten times that. These oasis communities owe their survival to the streams of glacial melt water from the nearby mighty Kunlun and Karakoram Mountain ranges to the south extending into Tibet and India.

The paved road we are on is the southern leg of the once-famous Silk Road connecting China with Europe.  Marco Polo, the Italian merchant from Venice, passed this way in about 1271. The northern leg goes around the other side of the desert.

On one occasion while traveling, Calvin suddenly shouts to the driver, “Stop, stop!” A short distance away in a field, we spot a farmer guiding his plow pulled by a camel. Calvin jumps out of our vehicle and runs to the farmer. Soon we see Calvin in the driver’s seat, one hand on the plow and the other holding the reins. When he climbs back in the vehicle, he explains that many years ago in Bolivia he learned to handle a plow with oxen and now he could not resist trying his hand at driving a camel.

Our team is afforded remarkable freedom to visit wherever and whomever we like. In this kind of work, we get to go places where no tourists ever go or perhaps would not even wish to go. Since our goal is to design a rural poverty alleviation project, we want to meet with poor women in their own setting. We enter a village and walk along a dusty winding side road in search of a below-average household, being careful not to step in deposits of animal dung. One can generally tell from the type and condition of the earthen wall and wooden gate if the family dwelling behind the structure is well-to-do or not.

We enter a shabby-looking courtyard and are greeted by a woman who in appearance looks much older than her fortyish years. Quickly straightening out her hair, white cap and navy jacket, she invites us into her one-room, mud-brick house. In one corner, an open fireplace along with a couple of black pots makes up the kitchen. The smoke somehow has to find its way up through the blackened roof beams. In another corner is the brick platform bed supposedly big enough to accommodate the whole family. Through an opening under one side of the bed can be placed hot coals for warmth during the cold winters. There is no electricity or running water. A chest of drawers, one wooden chair, an oil lamp, a small mirror and a calendar picture of a tropical waterfall pretty well completes the decor.

We ask about her family and how she makes her living. Turns out she’s a widow with three children; a daughter aged twenty-three and two younger sons. We also learn she suffers from a heart condition. She cultivates four mu of land (2/3 of an acre); three mu of wheat and one of cotton. After wheat harvest, she plants 2.5 mu of maize and half a mu of vegetables, most of which she sells in the local market. Cotton is a cash crop and is sold as well. Her wheat and maize production is for home consumption but only lasts about ten months of the year. In the remaining two months, she has to come up with cash to purchase additional food.

Does she have any livestock, we ask. Yes, a donkey, a milk cow and one chicken. With a small bank loan of 500 Yuan ($85 Cdn) she purchased two young sheep that she fattened for three months just prior to the last Muslim festival and was able to earn a small profit of about $10. To augment her meager income, she spins a bit of wool each week and does some carpet weaving.

Later we estimate that this family of four earns less than a dollar per person a day, well below the United Nations poverty benchmark of two dollars a day. What kind of program can we design that would best help this family and others like it? One county governor recommended that we use a two-tier approach. First help those families who are already better off who will then help their poorer neighbors. Development practitioners call this the “trickle-down theory.” The trouble is wealth seldom trickles down. One might ask, why aren’t those who are already better off not helping their poor neighbors now?

Being the micro-finance specialist that he is, Calvin is soon busy on his laptop back in his hotel room, late into the evening, constructing a model of what a micro-credit/village banking program might look like. We visit a village credit cooperative to get a better understanding of how things work on the ground. We’ve heard complaints about how long it takes to process loan applications. In the credit officer’s tiny office, we encounter several farmers come to request a loan, who with their weather-beaten faces and fur hats look like they’ve just come down from their highland pastures in the mountains to buy more sheep. In this case, we are impressed with the efficiency of this credit officer. Calvin asks him how long it takes to get a small loan. He thinks a bit and says, “Six minutes.” Wow!  Plus this guy is a whiz on the abacus.

After a hefty lunch in the village oasis of Pishan, the leaders feel they have to show us their hospitality yet one more time before we depart. We are invited to a dance party at the nicest and larger-than-average home belonging to the local chief of police. We sit cross-legged on carpets spread out over the raised sleeping platform along two sides of the room. Local adults and children fill all other spaces and crowd around every open doorway and window.

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We are entertained by “professional” dancers and a motley band of musicians playing an assortment of unrecognizable (at least to us) stringed instruments. The dances are lively, costumes colorful and facial expressions show they are having fun. One unique movement is how the women move their heads back and forth in a horizontal direction, by thrusting the chin forward and backward, all the time raising and lowering their out-stretched arms. We dubbed it the “wounded bird” dance.

One particularly memorable dance was by a woman who started off by herself but soon button-holed one of the local men to join her. He then had to follow her lead. Most of the time they faced each other but without touching. After a time, the poor fellow wanted to withdraw and sit down but she, with her skillful, seductive movements would cut him off every time. It was fascinating to watch.

Predictably, it wasn’t long before she grabbed one of us foreigners to dance with her. It was Calvin that she chose. He tried his best to follow her but I think his performance could best be described as the “Mennonite shuffle.” It must have been most amusing for the assembled crowd, knowing that until recently this region was closed to foreigners. It was unimaginable that any foreigner would come to your small village and even enter your home for a visit.

After this extended mid-day cultural show, it is time to move on. What with all the banquets and entertainment, we have to remind ourselves that we are after all on a working mission. We climb aboard our minibus to continue our journey westward. The wind has picked up and the sand storm is so bad that at times the driver can hardly see the road since ribbons of loose sand form across the road. Even with the windows tightly shut, you can feel the grit between your teeth.

Finally we reach Kashgar, an ancient city of 200,000 people at the western tip of the Taklimakan. A short distance farther west, the Karakorum Mountains rise to over 7,000 meters bordering Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. I think to myself, it’s not quite the edge of the world but one can almost see it from here. This is where the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converge before continuing on up into the mountains. Kashgar’s Old City has long been at the crossroads of traders and has been called the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia.

That Sunday, we visit what is said to be the largest weekly market in Central Asia—thousands of farmers, vendors, housewives and artisans congregate in this huge, mostly open-air market selling everything from ground spices and powdered scorpions to live sheep, donkeys and camels. We see silk and wool carpets, copper teapots and wooden jewelry boxes. If you need your beard trimmed or head shaved, that’s available as well.

We push our way through the chaotic crowds of people dressed in a colorful mixture of ethnic dress including tall bushy fur hats, white Muslim caps, felt skirts, colorful scarves, and thin brown hijabs. A signboard above the entrance of what looks like a government building has its name in three languages: Chinese, Uyghur and Russian.

April 14-16 – Easter weekend on our calendar but, of course, not so in Kashgar. Having completed our work here, we fly back to Urumqi and on to Beijing. It feels like another world compared to where we’ve just come from. Easter Sunday dawns bright and sunny. Calvin and I decide to hire a hotel car and driver to take us to see the Great Wall, about an hour and a half drive northward. This is my ninth trip to China and I have yet to visit what is said to be one of the “Seven Wonders of the World.” It is massive, and even if we get to climb along only about one kilometer out of the 6,000 km in total, it does not disappoint.

The Birth of Lucas
By Raquel Wilcox (Daughter)

It’s 1994 on Christmas Eve and my family (Mom, Dad and my younger brothers Michael and Nathan) is headed home from visiting our grandparents after celebrating mom’s 40th birthday. During this visit, my Mom had done a pregnancy test there and found out that at the age of 40, she was pregnant for the fourth time. Wow!

Though it must have been a shock for my dad to find out a fourth child would be born shortly before he turned 42, I remember feeling honored. Mom and Dad gave me the honor of telling me, their eldest child, first, which was almost immediately after the test. Because of this, I always felt included in the preparation of my future sibling’s birth. This new child would be the first to be born in the U.S., since my siblings and I had all been born in Bolivia, and not surprisingly, all of the “baby stuff” had been left behind in Bolivia. I remember the women’s group at Akron Mennonite Church held a shower and baby stuff was collected, but I also remember learning to sew in Home Economics class so I enjoyed contributing by making a cloth diaper holder and changing pad!

As September of 1995 approached, Mom and Dad still had not settled on a name, and they kept promising to make a decision “soon.” Dad, who is NOTORIUS for putting off final decisions, needed a deadline so one evening, very close to the due date, I not only set a deadline, but I said that on that day, my parents would take an evening stroll around the neighborhood to choose a final name or be locked out of the house. Lucky for everyone, they did come back with a fitting first name, Lucas, and a middle name, John, that incorporated my father’s deceased father’s name, John.

Every day in late August, I’d go to school, longing to hear the announcement that I needed to go home for the home birth of Lucas, since my parents had chosen to forgo the hospital and have a home birth. Of course he decided to make an appearance on the weekend, but he also chose Labor Day Weekend no less! Mom’s labor seemed long as both parents paced our living room, but my Dad was always supportive. Once in active labor, Lucas arrived shortly and my brother Nathan got the honors to cut the umbilical cord, and my Dad buried the placenta in the backyard.

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And, as was typical for welcoming my Dad home after a long international work trip, my siblings and I created a big “Welcome Home” banner, which for some reason we attached to our Dodge Caravan, which read, “It’s a Boy!” in large letters. Lucas, the new “baby” of the family has been a great addition to the family, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him grow into a responsible young adult.

Bosnia – The Business of Rebuilding
By Calvin “Cal” Miller
for MEDA Marketplace Magazine

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DECEMBER 1997 – JULY 2004)

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